Category: Teaching

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MOOCs, Meet Turing or Is It Socrates?

It dawns on me that Turing tests may have a role for the future of education and MOOCs. In short, can one create a Socratic style system that automates probing what a student knows? A combination of gamification (not a great word) and machine learning might allow a system to press a student to express more than “I memorized X” and move to explaining why in a discussion. If I understand the simple idea of Turing tests, one should not know that the other side is a machine in a conversation. It should be a discussion. That is what a professor does in Socratic method. There would likely be a wall of sorts where the student has no more questions or perhaps the machine determines that some level of mastery is in place. To me, a key reason to press questions is to see whether the student can answer why their claim or understanding is correct. When they can do that they may at last “own” the idea and then do something with it. Insofar as the key is to keep questioning, this approach will hit a different wall where a person may need to engage with the student. In addition, when a student asks something the teacher has not considered, a “does not compute” response will likely be a let down. Assuming one solves that personal dimension, that moment would be a signal to shift to other resources including instructors to go deeper into the issue. Otherwise we are left with test passing equals knowledge. As Erika Christakis put it, we have:

a broken system built on the dangerous misconception that testing is a proxy for actual teaching and learning. Somehow, along the path of good intentions, testing stopped being seen as a diagnostic tool to guide good instruction and became, instead, the instruction itself. It’s as if a patient were given a biopsy, learned she had cancer and was then told that no further medical treatment was necessary. If that didn’t sound quite right, we could just fire the doctor who ordered the test or scratch out the patient’s results and mark “cured” in the file.

Although I am leery of easy solutions, I think that a system that may prod a student to see what they know and then come to a teacher to gain further insight and evaluate what they grasp would be great. It might be a step away from a system that asks students to jump through a hoop and receive a star or treat for performing a trick without knowing why the words or ideas coming from them matter or how to apply the words and ideas to new contexts, which I think would be knowledge rather than inert data.

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Data Streams and E-Textbooks

Today “smart” e-books are in the news.  These books give professors access to a stream of data about how individual students are using their e-books—whether they are skipping pages, highlighting specific passages, or taking notes in the book. The software that makes such monitoring possible even provides an “engagement index” for each student.  The news stories I’ve encountered have mostly focused on how the data enables professors to identify and then reach out to students with poor study habits.

I don’t know how to spell the sound I made when I first heard this particular news angle, but it was something close to the classic UGH.  The company that created the software says its surveys indicate that few students or colleges have privacy concerns.  But I know I would feel like I was spying on the adults I teach.

Which is not to say that I couldn’t put the data stream to some use, at least in an aggregate form.  If a meaningful portion of my class does not appear to be reading the textbook but is nonetheless performing well in class and on exams, then my course is too easy or the textbook is a dud, or some combination of the two.

The data stream may also be of interest to the institutions that employ professors.  Every university, college, or graduate school has at least a couple gut courses—classes in which students can do very little work and still get good grades.   One concern in law schools is that GPA-conscious students will flock to a gut course instead of one that would better prepare them for the bar and eventual practice.   A dean who is trying to convince a professor that her class needs to be harder could put the data from smart e-books to very effective use.   In fact, some professors will be disinclined to embrace smart e-books once they realize that students aren’t the only ones who can be watched.

Last, I am struck by the connection between the emergence of smart e-books and a post Larry wrote a few weeks ago.  Larry’s post laments that as e-books become increasingly dominant, he will no longer be able to peruse the bookshelves of colleagues or friends as a means of sparking a connection or sizing them up.   E-books do not serve the same (often inadvertent) signaling function as a print book.  E-books mean that no-one can get a window into my interests by scanning my shelves or seeing what’s open on my coffee table.  They also mean that I can no longer pick out law students on the subway by looking for a telltale red binding.  But with smart e-books, a select group will know more about these students’ reading habits than most of us would have imagined just a few years ago.

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MOOCs in law schools

Last week both Frank and I blogged about the MOOC, the “massive open online course.” Also last week a substantial and prominent group of academics posted an open letter to the ABA that urged legal educators to consider, among other reforms, “building on the burgeoning promises of internet-distance education.” (The letter garnered positive press in diverse fora.) Might the MOOC platform be part of that “promise”?

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The Centralization of Higher Ed

Last month, I noted some important innovations in teaching, while striking a cautionary note about massive, open online courses (MOOCs). But for those who prefer MOOC-thusiasm, Tom Friedman’s recent column delivers:

You may think this MOOCs revolution is hyped, but my driver in Boston disagrees. You see, I was picked up at Logan Airport by my old friend Michael Sandel, who teaches the famous Socratic, 1,000-student “Justice” course at Harvard, which is launching March 12 as the first humanities offering on the M.I.T.-Harvard edX online learning platform. When he met me at the airport I saw he was wearing some very colorful sneakers.

“Where did you get those?” I asked. Well, Sandel explained, he had recently been in South Korea, where his Justice course has been translated into Korean and shown on national television. It has made him such a popular figure there that the Koreans asked him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a professional baseball game — and gave him the colored shoes to boot!

Friedman spends much of the remaining column arguing that universities need to a) get rid of “sage on a stage” lecture courses, while substituting in for them b) sages on YouTube like Sandel. The critical link to Education 2.0: intensive, individualized assessment & problem solving. So in Friedman’s ideal world, philosophers like Sandel would teach all the intro “Ethics” or “Justice” courses for millions, while local adjuncts would apply them to particular dilemmas (such as: should columnists disclose if they are “heirs to a multi-billion-dollar business empire”?).

The irony here is twofold. Read More

Social Science & Teaching

Gary King and Maya Sen have argued that traditional universities “can build on our tremendous advantage in research to improve teaching and learning.” In a recent article entitled “How Social Science Research Can Improve Teaching,” they give more details:

We marshal discoveries about human behavior and learning from social science research and show how they can be used to improve teaching and learning. The discoveries are easily stated as three social science generalizations: (1) social connections motivate, (2) teaching teaches the teacher, and (3) instant feedback improves learning. We show how to apply these generalizations via innovations in modern information technology inside, outside, and across university classrooms. We also give concrete examples of these ideas from innovations we have experimented with in our own teaching.

I don’t think all the ideas they propose in the piece could work in a law school context, but several seem well worth trying. I have found, for instance, that teaching a course in Health Data Analysis & Advocacy with a professor from my university’s math department has been a good “stretch” exercise for all involved. In other courses, I’ve tried to introduce students to various online communities that encourage learning about health law. (I’ve found that Twitter may well be the best place to keep track of what’s going on in the law and policy of health information technology.) The King/Sen paper offers many more ideas for promoting new kinds of learning, particularly for those willing to buck the MOOC trend with FASOCs (focused and small online courses).

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Classroom Minutes and Syllabus Design

I am dividing my Corporations casebook to fit the fourth different classroom schedule I’ve had this decade.  It is a taxing but valuable exercise, from a pedagogical standpoint.

At Boston College from 2002 to 2005, my 3-credit class met twice weekly for 90 minutes and I tailored my syllabus accordingly.  From 2007 to 2010, at George Washington, my 4-credit class met thrice weekly for 75 minutes, and I re-sliced, and slightly expanded, my course.

Visiting at Fordham this term, my 4-credit class is meeting twice weekly for 100 minutes; the syllabus I’m designing this week is for my visit at Cardozo in the Spring, where my 4-credit class will meet once per week for 110 minutes and twice per week for 50 minutes.  And at Cardozo, the Corporations course includes a mandatory separate sequence on Accounting, so the syllabus design is a bit more complex yet, as I incorporate material from another book.

In each exercise, the task entails assigning a set of materials, each defined as a teaching unit.  The pros and cons of the various combinations emerge, revealing how a given topic can be either expanded or contracted or linked in new ways with other units.   The exercise adds perspective on the materials for the teacher which should enrich the student experience.

Particularly interesting is how, at least as the book is designed, some topics are best suited for 50 or 75 minute units while others are better suited for the longer 90 to 110 minute slots.  That  knowledge will help me as I revise the book for its 8th edition next summer, trying to provide materials that can be readily sliced into separate series of 50 versus 75 versus 100 minute blocks.

As you can guess from the fact that I just diverted 20 minutes to writing this post, syllabus redesign to accommodate teaching minutes is not the most stimulating of activities. It is less interesting and less valuable than switching books, and is hardly as taxing.  Still, the exercise shows the value of variety.  Time to get back to it.

Picking Up Technical Knowledge

As I teach in some technical fields, I often get questions from students about “how much tech do I need to know to succeed in this field?” For example, the Health Law Survey includes many complex medical situations; my seminar Health Information, Privacy, and Innovation covers standards for certifying “meaningful use” of health information technology; and even the intro to IP course tends to include some forbidding patent cases in it. I think this advice from Michal Tsur and Leah Belsky is reassuring:

[S]uccessful tech companies require a variety of skillsets – from design and community management to operations and business development- both at the entry level and in leadership positions. Significant technical skills can also be learned both on the job and outside of traditional academic education. Take Marissa Mayer vs. Sheryl Sandberg. While Mayer, the current CEO of Yahoo may have graduated Stanford with a CS degree, Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, rose through the business ranks at Google, gaining enough product knowledge on the job to become one of the leading operators and innovators in the space.

Having just reviewed the offerings at Coursera this fall, I can definitely vouch for the idea that many tech skills are “on offer” outside the classroom. I’ve also heard from former students who picked up some tech management skills; for example, one learned software programming skills in order to deal with the massive paperwork in a litigation involving many small disputes. I’m also hoping to teach law students how to work with computer scientists and quantitative analysts in a spring course on data analysis and advocacy for attorneys (which I’ll be co-teaching with a professor from my university’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science). I know that Michigan State & Daniel Katz have really blazed a trail here; I’m hoping to apply some computational legal studies ideas in courses on health and IP law. If anyone has any suggestions on doing so, I’d love to hear them.

X-Posted: Madisonian.

4

The Increased Cost of Distance Education

For uninteresting reasons, I just read Indiana University’s Strategic Plan for Online Education.  Here’s a fact I didn’t know, and haven’t seen well-advertised in the blog discussion on the cost transformative effects of distance learning:

IU (and the remainder of higher education) needs to educate policy makers and the public that online education generally is more, not less, expensive than on‐campus education at both undergraduate and graduate levels. The biggest reason for this is that a universal experience is that equivalent quality online education requires greater individual student attention than on‐campus education at all levels. Units deal with this either by decreasing class sizes, increasing the credit given to faculty teaching online in calculating their teaching load, or providing additional instructional assistants; all of these increase cost per student.

Additional factors that increase the cost of online instruction are the technological infrastructure needed to support it, the need to support student access 24/7, and the greater costs to develop and maintain course materials. The main factor that generally is cited for a decreased cost of online instruction relative to on‐campus is that it doesn’t require classroom space. This is valid; a careful computation by Associate Vice President Steve Keucher calculates this savings at $8.68 per credit hour, or roughly $26 per three credit course. While significant, this savings is not enough to offset the additional costs of online education, such as class sizes that often are 20‐35% smaller.

As pointed out by IU Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Neil Theobald, an important factor in pricing online education is pricing by peers in this market. As shown by the pricing summary for other universities in Appendix B, this pricing offers some guidance but is highly variable.

This seems to pose a challenge to those who would say that distance learning will drive costs out of higher education, no?

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Does Topic Sequence in Teaching Matter?

What are we really teaching our students?  Those of us who complain that our students are too focused on learning rules and doctrines should read a provocative empirical study recently published on SSRN by my colleague Don Gifford, Villanova sociologist Brian Jones, and two of Don’s former students with expertise in statistical analysis, Joseph Kroart and Cheryl Cortemeglia. Donald G. Gifford, Joseph Kroart, Brian Jones & Cheryl Cortemeglia, What’s on First?: Organizing the Casebook and Molding the Mind, 44 Ariz. St. L.J. ___ (2013) (forthcoming).  The article describes an empirical study suggesting that whether the Torts professor begins with intentional, negligent, or strict liability torts affects the students’ understanding of the role of the common-law judge in a statistically significant way. The authors argue that the judge’s role in deciding intentional tort cases is at least to some extent more rule-based than her role in negligence and strict liability cases. Applying the work of sociologist Eving Goffman, they posit that beginning with intentional torts frames the judicial role in this manner. Further, they hypothesize that once frequently anxious first-semester students latch onto one particular conception of the judicial role during the initial weeks of the semester, it becomes anchored and resistant to change even after the students have studied other categories of tort liability.

Gifford et al. surveyed more than 450 first-year law students at eight law schools that vary widely in terms of their
reputational ranking. The students were surveyed at the beginning, middle, and end of the first semester. The survey results supported the authors’ hypothesis that students who begin their study of Torts with strict liability experience a greater shift toward understanding the judge’s role as being influenced by social, economic, and ideological factors and a sense of fairness and less as a process of rule application than do students who begin their study with either intentional torts or negligence.  Even when the authors controlled for the ranking of the law school, topic sequence still generated a significant effect on students’ perceptions of the role of the common law judge.  Nor did the effect of topic sequence vary by gender. The authors were surprised to find that students who began with intentional torts experience a greater attitudinal shift toward perceiving the judicial role as being policy influenced than do students who began with negligent torts.

Despite their disclaimers, the authors implicitly criticize the overwhelming majority of Torts professors who begin with intentional torts. Most Torts casebooks begin with intentional torts, at least after a brief introductory chapter.  Their editors claim that these cases are “accessible,” “memorable,” and provide “a nice warm up” for studying other torts. Some of these same editors admit that intentional torts comprise a “backwater” in modern tort practice. Gifford et al. suggest that the real reason for beginning with intentional torts may be because that is the way it always has been done. They note that the first Torts casebook, edited by James Ames Barr, Dean Langdell’s colleague, began with intentional torts. They provocatively suggest that Ames may have begun with intentional torts in part precisely because these torts were most rule-like in nature and furthered Langdell’s mission to make the law appear “scientific” in order to justify its inclusion within the university curriculum. If this is true, note the authors, then most modern-day Torts professors are “unwitting conscripts” in the Langdellian mission. Read More

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Overlong Resumes, Redux: What Would Alex Kozinski Do?

By way of seconding Gerard’s comments regarding resume (and CV) creep and its baneful effects, let me share with you the rather short resume of an incredibly well-accomplished person: Alex Kozinski, circa 1984, as he was applying for a position on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Note that Judge Kozinski’s resume back then (as taken from the files of the Reagan Library) was all of two pages long, and that he didn’t go on and on explaining precisely what he did as a clerk for Chief Justice Burger, Judge Kennedy, or even as a judge on the Court of Claims. He didn’t even mention that he was once a contestant on “The Dating Game.”

Given that it’s interviewing season, this also might provide a good opportunity for me to offer a couple of resume tips to law students. I enjoy reviewing students’ resumes, and see a number of recurring errors along with what I consider to be poor judgment calls. I’ll offer a few suggestions, for what they’re worth, after the jump.

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